Posted November 25, 2008 by J. Gerald Hebert
Texas Congressional Clout DeLayed
Tom DeLay’s scorched earth Texas gerrymander has left a sad legacy in the Lone Star State. I saw it coming as the lawyer representing the Texas Democrats challenging DeLay’s mid-decade power grab. For many Texans, perhaps it’s all beginning to sink in now. In recent articles in Politico and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram the Texas delegation was emphasizing that it had more clout than one would think. This is not the way it had been for decades as the delegation wielded considerable power in Washington year in and year out no matter which party was in control of Congress. As the Star-Telegram noted “Texans like clout: having it, using it, throwing it around.” You can never ignore a 32 Member House delegation, but ‘what might have been’ has to be keeping people up at night down there.
The articles point out how much more power Texans would have if the Republican controlled Texas legislature had not caved under pressure from disgraced ex-Congressman DeLay and conducted a re-redistricting of the congressional districts in 2003. The mid-decade re-redistricting was a political power grab, pure and simple. Even DeLay himself publicly admitted this at the time. When asked why he was pushing to replace the perfectly legal congressional map with one of his own: “I am the majority leader and I want more seats” he said. Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court refused to overturn the extremist gerrymandering. As a result, the law today when it comes to partisan gerrymandering is essentially this: anything goes.
Texas voters are still feeling the sting of this blatant power grab. The re-redistricting led to the defeat of a number of very powerful and House Democrats who had years of experience. Since committee chairs are handed out on the basis of seniority, Texas would have gained considerable additional clout if there had been no re-redistricting. Martin Frost would chair the Rules Committee today, one of the most powerful committees. Charlie Stenholm would chair the Agriculture Committee, and Jim Turner would chair the Homeland Security Committee. Three incredibly important committee chairs, all lost due to the extreme gerrymander engineered by Tom DeLay. And where did those powerful committee chairs go? The answer, which must be particularly galling to Texans, is New York, Minnesota and Mississippi. Texans do like political clout. Who doesn’t? But I doubt they are happy over the transfer of their clout to other states.
Tom DeLay is long gone from the national scene (although he may still be indicted in connection with the Jack Abramhoff scandal if the Justice Department ever can make public corruption prosecutions a priority again). In the meantime, Texans can thank their three backbone-less leaders: Governor Rick Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and Speaker Tom Craddick. Each lacked the political courage to stand up to DeLay and block the power grab. Each engaged in the most reprehensible wrong imaginable: abusing their political power to advance an agenda that in the end hurt their constituents. As a result, the abusive re-redistricting became law, powerful and well respected Democratic Members of Congress from Texas were gerrymandered out of their seats, and the clout that Texas voters enjoyed went with the ousted Members.
For many years to come, the Texas congressional re-redistricting gerrymander of 2003 will remain Exhibit A for why we need redistricting reform. Texas state senator Jeff Wentworth has pushed a redistricting reform bill for many years in the Texas Legislature and it has been gaining momentum as Texans recognized that DeLay’s political bloodletting had hurt all Texans, Democrats and Republicans alike. Wentworth’s plan is not perfect, but it’s a good start. Last session, the bill passed the Senate but stalled in the Texas House. Texas voters would have a lot to gain if they put pressure on their legislative leaders to enact a meaningful redistricting reform bill. It’s too late to regain the delegation’s lost clout, but it’s never too late to do the right thing.